April 29, 2005

Not Extinct!

The most incredible news this week was the announcement that there are still ivory-billed woodpeckers in the United States! Here is a bird that was declared extinct in the United States in 1988 because the last confirmed sighting had dated back to 1968.

But, there have always been random reports of this bird and in 2002, Zeiss sponsored an expedition through the Louisana swamps looking for signs that the woodpecker still haunted these lands. The Zeiss expedition ended with no sightings and a feeling that if the Ivory-billed Woodpecker was to be found, it would be somewhere else than the Louisiana swamps. But for most, the real conclusion was that most likely the bird was extinct. Indeed, how could it be possible that this bird was still around when not one had been seen for such a long time?

So it was with great joy we hear that we have confirmed reports and a brief, but compelling video (hat tip to Chris Mooney), that this magnificant bird still lives in our deep and swampy forests. Somehow this incredible bird has found a way to survive almost a half a century without a confirmed sighting despite the fact that birders had been searching for it for years.

The Ivory-billed Woodpecker had captured the imagination of avid birders since the days of John James Audubon. As the Birder's Handbook says:

A century and a half ago Audubon wrote: "The Ivory-billed Woodpecker confines its rambles to a comparatively very small portion of the United States." It actually was found in much of the Southeast, but it had very special habitat requirements - mature, swampy, riverine forests about which the great artist waxed poetic:

...Would that I could describe the extent of those deep morasses, overshadowed by millions of gigantic dark cypresses, spreading their sturdy moss-covered branches, as if to admonish intruding man to pause and reflect on the many difficulties which he must encounter, should he persist in venturing farther into their almost inaccessible recesses, extending for miles before him, where he should be interrupted by huge projecting branches, here and there the massy trunk of a fallen and decaying tree, and thousands of creeping and twining plants of numberless species."

He goes on to describe the "dangerous nature of the ground ... the hissing of serpents ... the bellowing of alligators" and "the sultry pestiferous atmosphere ... in those gloomy and horrible swamps."

It was in these forbidding forests that woodpeckers sought to live their secretive lifes. Nevertheless, by the turn of the 20th century, 80-some years after Audubon, the forests were largely cleared and the woodpeckers were hard pressed to find habitat large enough to support their needs. Increasingly sporatic sighting were made until the late 60's when the last reported sighting was recorded. And then there was the long drought. Another half century would go by before we could truly say that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker was more than just a figment of an ardent birder's imagination.

The fact that we now have evidence that this woodpecker has survived is testament to the resilience of life in spite of the depredations of humans. It is a wonderous story, yet one which reminds us that we humans are hard on the creatures around us. Would humans do as well if other of God's creatures had the upper hand?

Posted by Mary at April 29, 2005 12:05 AM | Science | Technorati links |

the possibly sad thing about the sighting of the woodpecker is that no one knows whether there are any others.

Posted by: Magpie at April 29, 2005 09:42 AM

Where do you get the info that the last confirmed sighting was 1968? Almost every source I've seen, including the Science paper announcing this discovery, indicates the last confirmed sighting in the US was in 1944. (There were also some likely sightings of a subspecies in Cuba in 1986-1987.)

Posted by: P.M.Bryant at April 29, 2005 11:41 AM

The 1968 date was one that was in the essay (Disappearing Ivorybill) I quoted from out of the Birder's Handbook, page 359 in my paperback copy. Here is what it said:

...the number of Ivorybills dropped precipitously between 1885 and 1900 as the timbering industry expanded. The species' decline was especially swift since a single breeding pair requires some three square miles of undisturbed forest for its territory. By 1939 an estimated two dozen breeding Ivorybills remained in the continental United States, and by 1968, only six were reported to exist. It seems very unlikely that any persist today -- habitat destruction, perhaps combined with inbreeding as population sizes declined, had done them in.

My copy of the Birder's Handbook was published in 1988. The essay went on to say that perhaps the Cuban subpopulation could be used to reintroduce them to the mainland.

Posted by: Mary at April 29, 2005 07:14 PM